By Elizabeth Lindqwister, 2019 Liljenquist Fellow, Prints & Photographs Division.
Compared to more prominent nursing figures like Clara Barton and Dorothea Dix, women like Cynthia Denham often go unnoticed. Because there were over 1000 (documented) nurses working in hospitals during the Civil War, it makes sense that many faded into historical obscurity, despite their years of service to the United States.
With that in mind, it makes sense that Cynthia Denham’s life story exists today in pieces; it is documented in a pension file, in few letters from acquaintances, and in recordings about her husband. What we do know about her is as follows.
Cynthia R. Tuell Denham was born on September 13, 1838 in Rhode Island. She was the daughter of the Newport, Rhode Island couple, James and Priscilla Tuell, who married in September 1820. Her father was a harness maker, and it is assumed that the Tuell family resided in Newport for much of Cynthia’s early life.
Cynthia Tuell ended up marrying fellow Rhode Islander and jeweler, Daniel C. Denham, Jr on December 9, 1858. He was the descendent of Daniel Dunham, who was once enlisted in the Continental Navy and worked on the U.S.S. “Providence” in the 1770s. The couple had one child after the war, Elizabeth “Lizzie” Denham, on September 15, 1866.
Yet, Cynthia and Daniel were still young and childless when the War broke out, and both decided to join the war cause on the Union side. Daniel enlisted in May 1862 as a private in the Company “L”, 9th Infantry, of the Rhode Island Volunteers, while Cynthia joined many other women in becoming a nurse. She started working in approximately September 1863, and served as a volunteer nurse at Lovell General Hospital in Portsmouth Grove, Rhode Island.
There are no known soldier or surgeon testimonies made about Cynthia Denham, but much can be inferred from her time at Lovell Hospital. Katherine Prescott Wormeley, a fellow nurse and Rhode Islander also stationed at Lovell, was the hospital superintendent from September 1862 through the fall of the next year. It is possible that Cynthia and Katherine crossed paths – Cynthia was hired into Lovell in approximately September 1863.
Lovell Hospital was also a relatively unique institution, compared to the hundreds of other hospitals in operation during the War. It was situated in a state and in a location relatively far off from battle, which provided some risk for wounded soldiers having to travel a distance to get medical attention. There were no Civil War battles held in Rhode Island, yet the hospital was still established in 1862 primarily for its proximity to the ocean -- this made it easier to transport soldiers by water -- and because its size could accommodate hundreds of soldiers at a time. It’s likely that Cynthia engaged with Union soldiers and Confederate prisoners, as Lovell was known to house both.
Cynthia’s time as a war nurse extended for just under two years, from her enlistment in September 1863 through to her discharge in May 1865. During her tenure, Cynthia may have cared for thousands of soldiers, as the hospital saw over 10,000 patients in its 3-year operating period. Daniel was in the war for a much shorter period of time than Cynthia; the 9th Infantry Rhode Island regiment was mustered out in September of 1862, just four months after Daniel enlisted. It is unclear what Daniel was occupied with while Cynthia was still serving as a nurse, but he was not commissioned into any other regiments for the remainder of the War.
Following the war, it is assumed that the Denhams returned to Newport, Rhode Island. Both Cynthia and Daniel applied for United States veteran pensions, since they served through the Civil War as volunteers, and multiple nurses and soldiers had begun making financial claims for their wartime efforts. In her army nurse pension files, Cynthia further admits that she was unable to sustain postwar employment because of the various ailments acquired while serving and with age. Daniel’s application was denied, but Cynthia’s file was considered and approved in 1896. Her physician testified that she had an ailing heart, had difficulty with walking and physical exertion, and could not complete housekeeping tasks as she had in the past. Some of these medical concerns can be seen in the state of her signature at the time of pension application. She wrote with a shaky hand, and her name is often written illegibly.
For these reasons, and for her year of service, Cynthia received a $12 pension from 1896 until her death in 1913.
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